For many years, cricket ball was denied its due importance. Everyone saw it as a small, red spherical speck that could be belted by batsmen disdainfully, thrown around by fielders casually. It arguably acquired an identity of its own for the first time in the year 1932. And due to a quality that was hitherto not associated with it – its ability to hurt and humiliate. This quality was exploited by the then English captain, Douglas Jardine and his cohorts. The ploy was mainly executed to stop Bradman and his team members – fire everything at their chest, make fielders stand very close to both sides of pitch, and bask in the glory of watching them cower. There’s a popular saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” For Jardine, it could very well have been, “If you can’t beat them, hurt them.” The Bodyline series was condemned by majority.
Four decades later, cricket ball’s this very nature was cynosure of all eyes. And the perpetrators were two Australians – Dennis Lilee, Jeff Thompson. But little did anyone know that an entire team was preparing and planning to use the cricket ball in a similar diabolical fashion to avenge the humiliation – not only on the cricket field, but also historically, the humiliation they had seen their elders subjected to. West Indies (a group of Caribbean islands) got independence in 1960s, their cricket team woke up from stupor only a decade later. I can imagine the scars would have been as fresh. They say ‘cricket is a great leveler’, which means you are only as good as a player on a particular day, the next day could undo all your bravado. The writing always begins from a blank page. The West Indies team wanted that blank page more than anyone else. Fire in Babylon is the story of that West Indian team.
Few places promise more equality than a playground. And especially cricket-grounds which host test matches, where there’s no superficial distinction between competing teams. There are no rulers, and no serfs. And the only weapon of inflicting comeuppance is a bat and a ball. And the movie lays these basic facts right in the beginning, that the ascension of West Indian cricket team was just not about cricket, that winning cricket matches paved road for a bigger victory – of restoring one’s own self respect. And then we get to meet the movie’s motley characters. Players then, yardstick of greatness in cricket now. And if you even have a fraction of interest in cricket, you would know the names – Micheal Holding, Vivian Richards, Clive Lloyd, Andy Roberts, Colin Croft, Joel Garner. Cricket’s history would not be written without these players.
So the advantage with which the movie begins is immense. A populist emotion at hand (everyone likes a good underdog story), backed by players who are such legends that just listening them talk about cricket is a delight, seeing them part of a narrative, where they recount their own struggles is a completely different beast on an emotional level. Very few movies have such massive advantages to begin with.
The movie introduces us to the West Indies cricket team of early 1970s; a team that mostly symbolized levity on cricket field, seldom invoked fear. They were seen as jovial losers. With the help of Dennis Lilee and Jeff Thomson, Australians humiliated them in the 1975-76 series; the result read 5-1. The writing on the wall had never been clearer: the team that could get the cricket ball to do the talking would be the one grinning at the end. West Indian team had three players as fitting rejoinder – Holding, Craft, and Roberts. These lanky men could make the ball spit fire. It wasn’t for any reason that Micheal Holding was nicknamed ‘whispering death’. And in those days, the batsman batted sans any protective gears. The power scale in the game of cricket was beginning to tilt. The movie exploits this facet of the game very astutely. Aggression. It’s really not a bad word, the movie tends to imply. Because the game is just not on between the duration the bowler delivers the ball and the batsman plays a shot. It carries on even after that, when the bowler glowers at the batsman when he has got the better of him, or on the contrary, when the batsman trundles down the pitch, and taps the pitch midway, maintaining eye contact.
In a documentary, it is difficult to pinpoint a standout performance, because the characters merely recount their experiences. No one’s really acting. But even then there’s a standout performance in the movie – Vivian Richard’s. You can’t miss the glint in his eyes when he speaks, and that hint of a minatory smile. And Vivian had an especially important role in the side because he would often be targeted by the opposition team, because after being assaulted by the West Indian fast bowlers, the opposition wanted to vent it against the West Indian batsmen. And they would often run into him. And he used to stand tall, not literally, rather figuratively, and not buckle down. Wearing merely a cap, he would be subjected to a barrage of snorters, verbal volleys. But he would not stop glowering. He says in the movie, “I would rather die out there.” And then out of nowhere, he would rock back on to back-foot and hook one ferociously over deep fine leg. To excel as a cricketer in the 70s, merely possessing cricketing skills wasn’t enough.
But despite a lot of ingenious flourishes, almost halfway through the movie, you realize that the narrative is just spinning in circles. Going back and forth amongst different players and they are all saying essentially the same thing – about racism, conflicts with Australian team, England team, and how they were getting even with the world of cricket, getting even with their masters. And that’s the movie’s most prominent undoing – that it does not have much to say. It has exhausted its major narrative juices in the first half an hour.
Most documentaries are compelling because they don’t take a side, and are non-judgmental. They just lay down the bare facts in front of you and allow you to draw your own conclusion. Fire in Babylon firmly takes a stand, which is, to unreservedly extol the West Indian team. And really, nothing wrong with that, but something that plagues the movie quite badly is lack of an outside perspective. For almost the entire running time, players are back-slapping each other — the batsmen praise the bowlers, the bowlers return the favor to batsmen, and both of them combine to praise the captain. No one is doubting their place in cricketing pantheon, so their heaping praise on one another repeatedly does nothing to elevate the drama, but rather comes across as tautological. It also offsets the tone of the movie, three-fourth into the movie, and it becomes too self-congratulatory for its own good.
The movie could have definitely been whittled a lot. Not that it’s current length is overwhelming — 80 minutes, but surprisingly, even then it’s a lot bloated and repetitive. Fire in Babylon is a movie that has a very interesting story to tell, but then when it comes to movies, there’s this constant tussle between the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Fire in Babylon is pretty much spot in with ‘what’, but sadly, its ‘how’ is an unfulfilled promise.